Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Do Americans Respect Mothers?

I'm moved to comment on the media firestorm sparked by Hilary Rosen's comment that Ann Romney, a housewife, "never worked a day in her life" and therefore we can disregard her opinions on economic issues. I have little interest in defending or criticizing Rosen's comment itself. Although I will say that since all members of American society are impacted by economic issues, none of our opinions should be disregarded outright. But I'm more interested in how conservative pundits have seized on Rosen's gaff to flaunt how much they supposedly respect motherhood.

Like a lot of people, as this controversy began, I wondered if Ann Romney had a lot of help raising her children from nannies and maids. As it turns out, despite her husband's considerable wealth she apparently didn't rely on much help at all. Although it seems her choice to manage most of the household duties herself came more out of a sense of personal gratification than anything else. If indeed that is the case, good for her for finding a career that she loves, is good at, and being lucky enough to find a man willing and able to support her doing it for her entire life. I have no doubt that she's worked hard. But that's hardly the point when addressing women and economic issues in America.

Certainly plenty of affluent wives choose to both not work and not do most of the childcare or household chores, an option few if any men get. If a man were to do the same thing he'd be demeaned by society as a good-for-nothing houseboy. Few wives would respect such a husband. But mothers are supposed to believe that there's something inherently special about us. That we simply have children supposedly gives us automatic status, no matter what we actually do with our time. It doesn't and it shouldn't.

Stay-at-home-moms whose husbands are rich can at least take comfort in the belief that if they divorce they will get half of all shared possessions and perhaps a few years of considerable alimony payments (although that is also no guarantee. Guys financially smart enough to get rich are also smart enough to hide assets.) A fireman's housewife whose husband leaves her when she's 50 years old can pretty much expect to work low-wage jobs until she's dead or unable. Her ex-husband, on the other hand, is likely to continue growing his income and retirement benefits as he has been for decades.

It is taboo to attack motherhood in America because it is typical for mothers to give up careers to stay home, despite the serious financial risks that come with that choice. It is also common for them to work part time to devote more time to the children and household, or to even work full time while devoting more time than their husbands do to child care and housework. Women earn less than men partially because mothers are more likely to sacrifice time and effort at their jobs so they can put in more at home. Women also earn less than men because employers often discriminate against mothers, expecting them to sacrifice work for duties at home. We live in a society where it is considered a woman's responsibility to do most of the child care and housework, whether she has a career or not. The very term "motherhood" is associated with domestic tasks, opposed to "fatherhood" which conjures up images of working "providers" perhaps playing with their kids on the weekend.

Given certain economic realities, America's traditional attitude toward motherhood is disrespectful. Until our society also compensates women for this extra set of unpaid, domestic tasks, it is not okay to insist that those tasks are disproportionately our responsibilities. It's perfectly fine to go on about the nobility of a mother maintaining a home and being on hand as her children's tutor, chaperon, driver, cook, and primary emotional support system, so long as she gets something of equal worth back for it (so more than an annual holiday and a lot of lip service.) But that only happens for mothers such as Ann Romney who are lucky enough to be in lasting marriages with high-salaried husbands. All the rest are getting the short end of the stick.

Of course the other half of the solution is to encourage a major shift in our society's thinking about both motherhood and fatherhood. We'd have to get to the point where employers and co-workers expect that fathers as well as mothers will take off more time from their jobs to tend to their children. In addition, those employers would not discriminate against parents in hiring and giving out raises and promotions, and child-free co-workers would be willing to pick up the slack out of respect for these parents who have taken on the additional job of raising the next generation. All of which happens to run counter to traditional attitudes.

Until Americans have universal health care and free day and after school care for our children, Americans' supposed respect for mothers is nothing more than a smokescreen. If we respect motherhood so much, why don't we prove it?

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